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Sunday, August 12, 2007

A Day at The Races

Growing up in southwestern Pennsylvania, I never saw a horse race in person. The Meadows harness racing track was nearly in my backyard (ok, about 25 miles away), and I rode my bike past the Palones’ Fern Cliff Farm nearly every day in the summer since my best friend Amy lived on their road. However, given that I was the only horse-crazy person in my family, no one saw fit to indulge me. Instead, my dad dragged us all over the region to air shows—I was in diapers when we went to the air shows in Dayton, Ohio and Oshkosh, Wisconsin, with Dad nursing our road-weary white 1958 Ford Skyliner the whole trip.

The first horse race I ever saw was on our black-and-white, aerial-antenna television with an erratic horizontal hold. It was Secretariat winning the Belmont Stakes in 1973. I assume my parents turned it on because the chestnut colt was a “Big Deal” and they wouldn’t feel in the loop if they didn’t watch. This powerful machine I could barely make out through the grainy and looping black-and-white picture transfixed me at the age of eight. Two years later, I was hooked on a colt named Foolish Pleasure, and a lifetime fixation began. Here are pictures from my scrapbook, filled with newspaper clippings of the most important racehorses of my youth—Foolish Pleasure, Ruffian, Forego, Seattle Slew, Affirmed, Alydar, Spectacular Bid, Genuine Risk.

Wow, now that I think about it, I was very lucky to have grown up during a decade with three Triple Crown winners!

I even edited the clipping regarding Genuine Risk’s retirement, where some bozo writer noted incorrectly that Spectacular Bid had won the Triple Crown. Talk about two devastating retirements in one week!

In college, and through graduate school, I drifted away from horseracing, as studying, partying and other interests took priority. Again, there were no thoroughbred tracks anywhere near me, and my friends and I enjoyed other passions together—like ice hockey. My friend Luanne and I did multi-city hockey tours during Spring Breaks in grad school, seeing Eric Lindros in Philadelphia, Al Iafrate in Washington, and even getting center ice seats in the true Mecca, old Maple Leafs Garden in Toronto. We went to college games (mostly Cornell) and minor league games—inspired by “Slapshot,” we journeyed to Johnstown to see if their Chiefs fans were as fanatic as in the movie (they were).

Two years ago, my friends and I began going to Penn National’s off-track betting facility that recently closed here in Johnstown. I fell in love all over again with the sport of my youth, again via the televised picture—although now in color and in much larger scale. For the first time, I learned to handicap and bet on races, something I had never done as a kid. Coming from a lower middle class family of six whose father had grown up during the Great Depression when money was precious and not to be gambled away, I never thought to look at horseracing in that way. It was only a glorious sport with beautiful animals that I loved to watch no matter who won, though I certainly had my favorites!

On Friday, two of my gambling buddies and I drove 2-1/2 hours to visit Charles Town Races and Slots—a racino—although the slots held little interest for me. This was to be my first taste of live racing! And, while I brought plenty of Bris sheets, pens and markers, I forgot my camera, so no pictures (sorry). First impression: a nicely situated facility with a clear view of the racetrack as you drive past stable barns to get to the parking garages adjoining the slots parlor. Like every other casino I have ever been inside, the design is intentionally maze-like and confusing, with hanging signs pointing out restrooms, restaurants and (shockingly!) the actual race track. Before heading for the track, we fueled up at the Epic Buffet, where for $11.99 we had our fill of curried chicken with jasmine rice, fried shrimp, ocean perch in a light cream sauce, pasta salads galore, clam chowder, and a startlingly impressive array of desserts. For anyone visiting Charles Town, we definitely recommend the Buffet option, for the price, the selection, and the food quality.

Finally, we were ready to hit the track! Well, the simulcast area first, since it was only 2 p.m. and live racing did not begin until 7:15 p.m. After working our way through the various rooms filled with penny slot machines, we found the simulcast room spacious and clean, with plentiful tellers and bettors that were even more plentiful. Our OTB facility in Johnstown was roomy and clean, but usually there were only two or three tellers working, plenty to handle the twenty or so bettors there on a typical day. Charles Town’s facility was a revelation, packed with a hundred or more in the same amount of space we had in Johnstown. Same kind of characters, though, including the drunk singing 1980s classics—loudly and off-key. It took awhile to settle in and get our bearings, and to be honest, I never really felt comfortable there. I did win $20.60 when Slipstone took the sixth race at Saratoga, but taking all those races off the turf (and the accompanying scratches) screwed the pre-race analysis I had done the night before so I was just satisfied to soak in the environment without laying out too many bets.

After a brief foray into the penny slots (where I won $30, only to lose it all, plus a little more), it was time for the live races. The day had been hot and humid, but there was no way I wanted to sit in the air-conditioned grandstand. We walked out of the simulcast room and onto a concrete apron with round concrete picnic tables and long metal benches—and right up to the rail which was five feet from the track! It was incredible! We positioned ourselves at the finish line, and marveled at the cool breeze that picked up and the impressive view of the distant mountains sweeping around the track. As post time for the first race approached, a large number of people joined us outside—hardcore horseplayers, lesbian biker chicks, German tourists, families with little kids. We guessed the crowd topped off at six or seven hundred, probably atypical for any other night, but it was Friday. Everyone was friendly and quite pleasant—even the drunks were jovial, not rude or loud.

Finally, the horses came out, walking right by us before jogging around the track to the starting gate. Now, I know $5,000 claimers are not quality horses, but watching them pass, we were in awe. Sure, they were thinner than they look on television, and the jockeys really were tiny, but they all pranced by so impressively. For the 6-1/2 furlong races at Charles Town, the starting gate is located at the top of the homestretch; for the 4-1/2 furlong races, they move the gate around to the backstretch, to a chute off the first turn. I don’t know if this is true every night, but the longest race at Charles Town that night was 7 furlongs, so not much interest in staying power—it’s all about speed. There is no turf course.

Anyhow, when the gates swung open for that first 6-1/2 furlong race, we were standing there, directly at the finish line, not five feet from the track, and when the horses passed us for the first time, I admit that I choked up. It was the sound—the sound of pounding hooves on the dirt sent chills up my spine, the exact same way that blades skimming over the ice do. Does that make sense? Maybe it’s just me, but the sensual aspects of sound and smell play an important connector to visual experiences. When those horses went by, I felt such a joy that it brought tears. We watched as they looped around the track, and a palpable excitement arose in the crowd as they rounded the final turn. Re Break, an 8-1 high-weight longshot won by three lengths over second choice Menifee Man. After the gallop-out, the horses trotted directly past us, close enough that we could see which ones were breathing hard (and which ones were now limping a bit). Shortly after his trip to the winner’s circle, the winner himself walked past us, eyeballing the crowd and tossing his head as if to say, “Yeah, I’m the man.”

We actually placed few bets, so engrossed in the experience that we didn’t bother to buy a program or do any handicapping. Regrettably, we failed to wager on the one horse we had scoped out in advance as appropriate to honor an absent betting friend who loves playing horses with naughty names. Thus, we missed $28.80 paid out on Secret Syn who won race 5 over the odds-on favorite Frisco Depot. With a long drive ahead of us, we bailed just before 10:00 p.m., after the sixth race (where the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th place horses formed my losing $1 tri box). We all agreed it was a terrific day, and are definitely planning to return in the very near future.

It also won’t be the last race track I visit—I look forward to meeting The Last Filly and Turf Luck at the new Presque Isle Downs in September, and, after attending a conference in Charleston, WV in October, I plan on sneaking off to Keeneland. And, for this once horse-crazy girl and now smitten woman, next summer: Saratoga.


John said...

Nice post, Valerie. I always enjoy hearing how it is people got involved in the game. For me it was a camping trip inthe Catskills in 1969, my mother got bored one day and said let's go to Saratoga. That was all it took for me and like you I lost touch with the sport for a few years and then came back more fanatic than ever.

Neal Watzman said...

Nice post. I grew up not too far from you on the Ohio River north of Wheeling. I first caught the bug at Waterford Park, now Mountaineer.

I strongly recommend a trip to Keeneland! It's horse racing heaven especially in the fall. I make it down there at least once every season, and it's not to be missed.

And while you're in Lexington, stop at Kentucky Horse Park. Besides being another great place to see horses, Cigar and John Henry are living out there days there and are walked around for the public.

Anonymous said...

Valerie, your old paper clippings brought back great memories with my Dad. My Dad is the one that got me into following the horses. In fact reading the racing form and wagering I imagine myself with him.
Glad you made it to the Track. Going to Saratoga, well now, that's something to look forward to.--H

dana said...

Fantastic post, perhaps one of the best I've ever read! Thanks for sharing.

allinfun said...

What a great post. I grew up near Saratoga and started going up there with my grade school friend when her father took the month of August off. Back then we would just sit near the paddock and run up and watch the horses go by and then pick the cutest one. Now armed with the form and any other info I still occasionally pick the cute one. Sometimes it even works. Now when I go there I sometimes run into my friend from grade school. She is now there with her three children. The funny thing is that most of the people at Saratoga couldn't tell you anything about horse racing at any other time of the year. Oh well, that's why my second love is the Big A!